Book Review: Brother Digger by Patricia Shaw

Nearly thirty years ago I picked up a book for 50 cents at a discount store in Adelaide, South Australia. I had two toddlers and a husband who had a predilection for Italian shoes and bespoke suits. It was all I could afford. 

Brother Digger sparked my interest in Changi and the Thai-Burma Railway and provided the impetus to spend (a lot) more money on books about the subject. I’ve told the daughters that when I’m cremated this book is coming with me. It’s the story of the Sullivan brothers, not to be confused with the tv series, The Sullivans, nor the 1944 movie The Fighting Sullivans.

This one changed my life trajectory.

Patricia Shaw is an acclaimed Australian novelist. A teacher and political journalist before becoming head of the Oral History Department of the Parliamentary Library, it was during this period that Shaw wrote Brother Digger after a conversation with her neighbour, Frank Sullivan. 

Drawn from the reminiscences of the Sullivan brothers, and the friends that fought beside them during World War 2, Brother Digger is the true story of the five Sullivan brothers from Queensland who all enlisted in the 2nd AIF.

The Sullivans lived in rural Toowoomba, in a family of twelve children. Parents, James and Sylvia, did it tough during the Depression, though always managed to find sustenance for any callers looking for a feed.

Each of the Sullivans had a different war, and the author managed to interview all except the eldest, Jack, who passed in 1969. The information provided by each of these men, forty years later, is conversational in tone, personal, and none of them hold back. This makes the history feel real. Steve says of the Fall of Singapore, “There were no fortifications. It was another bloody balls-up.”

Although not big in size some of the stories within this book are huge. Jack and Steve had major authority figure issues with English military personnel yet both were leaders of men. Eugene makes several long term friendships at Changi, including Ringer Edwards on whom author, Neville Shute, based the character Joe Harmon in A Town Like Alice.

My favourite quote comes from the father, James, who said to his sons, “Bloody mad going off to fight for the British again. Will Australians never learn? And that Menzies! He’ll sing God Save The King and do exactly what the British tell him to do.”

Lt. Jack Sullivan served in Tobruk and PNG.

 Lt. Eugene Sullivan served in Malaya and Singapore, and was incarcerated at Changi POW Camp before being sent to work on the Burma Railway.

Frank served in the Middle East, was captured by the Italians and shipped to Italy. When the Italians surrendered he was transferred to a German stalag for the duration.

Steve joined the Citizen Military Services, or the chockos (as in chocolate soldiers that melt under pressure). He was awarded the Military Medal for his service in PNG.

Vic, eighteen at enlistment, served in PNG.

Each of the men have a fascinating story which is entwined with events at home. Telegrams are received, there’s a family wedding, the collation of Red Cross parcels, and Sylvia proudly receives her Female Relatives Badge with five stars.

It touches upon their reintegration into society at wars end. Eugene made a claim for medical conditions from his incarceration, including scratched eyeballs, a Japanese punishment ( not included in their records), and ulcerated legs, which were declined by Repatriation. He never appealed having been told he was a “bludger” and “no hoper”.

This is history at its best, a personal history and an insight into a slice of Australian life. It is filled with honesty and humour despite the ugliness of war.

Is there any particular book that made a change to your life?


9 thoughts on “Book Review: Brother Digger by Patricia Shaw

  1. To Emma who changed my life…my mom picked it up at the library after I left NYC for Alabama to reassure me that my life would continue although I was no longer at the center of the earth. That is who the author dedicated it to: a book about coming of age in NYC. I can’t think of the author but I can remember identifying with the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patricia Shaw

    Surprise Surprise!
    Hello Brizzy Mays, this is Patricia Shaw, author of Brother Digger.
    Just read your review (21 May 2019) and delighted that you are carrying on the interest in the Sullivan brothers and all of their comrades.
    Thank you and all the best


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